Sarasota County entertainment industry rebate program revised regarding flexibility on caps

Commissioner uses the example to encourage staff to be more open about problems arising from real-world applications of ordinances

Commissioners Charles Hines and Nancy Detert chat before the start of a meeting in January 2017. Rachel Hackney photo

As Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines characterized it, one request recently before the board was an example of how an ordinance or resolution could sound good when it was approved but turn out to be problematic in its application.

The issue on May 9 was a revised resolution regarding the county’s Entertainment Industry Economic Rebate Program. As a May 9 staff memo put it, the program’s goal “is to provide economic stimulus to the local economy through the development and expansion of the film, television and media industry in Sarasota County.”

The commission has allocated a total of $641,992 to the program since it began in 2010, the memo points out. The county keeps a pool of $250,000 available for the incentives, the memo adds.

The program generally has capped rebates to $25,000 per project, the memo explains. However, based upon a project’s size, scope and budgetary impact in the county, the memo continues, the commission has had the discretion to raise the cap. “To date, four projects have requested to exceed the project cap and all four were approved,” the memo says.

The change the board was being asked to consider on May 9, Jeff Maultsby, director of the county’s Office of Business and Economic Development, explained, would necessitate that any request to raise the cap be made “in advance of the project moving forward.”

“It would be my goal, frankly, to empower the film commissioner that we have here in Sarasota,” Chair Nancy Detert responded, referring to Jeanne Corcoran. “I think what we want is a fair process,” Detert added.

If Corcoran felt a project warranted a larger incentive, Maultsby said, she would make that recommendation to staff, and then staff would bring the request to the commission.

This is part of the checklist a company must use in applying for a rebate through the program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The cover of the new application for the rebate program makes it clear that the cap is $25,000 per project “and is available on a ‘first come-first’ served basis subject to available funds.” A footnote adds, “The Board of County Commissioners reserves the right to consider increases to the Project Cap in extraordinary circumstances. Projects will be considered on a case-by-case basis.”

The rebate program was designed to encourage people in the entertainment industry “to do their production and post-production work in Sarasota County, hire Sarasota County residents, contract with Sarasota County businesses and purchase meals and lodging in Sarasota County,” as the resolution implementing the program explains.

Jeanne Corcoran. File photo

During the May 9 discussion, Commissioner Michael Moran pointed out, “As everyone knows, I have been very critical in the past” of money provided as economic incentives to bring businesses to the county. His opposition to that process has been targeted at the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, he noted. “I can assure you that was never directed at Jeanne. I think she’s always done an incredible job — very results oriented; very reasonable, if you ask me.”

Moran made the motion to approve the revised resolution regarding the film incentives, and Hines seconded it. After it passed unanimously, Hines offered his reflections on the issue from a policy standpoint.

After the board approves certain processes, he said, “unique facts and circumstances come up” from time to time. The commissioners have told staff members in the past, he continued, “‘Communicate to us if there’s a problem.’”

He added, “The staff are the ones that are on the front lines of this. [They] deal with this and live with it.” They should not hesitate, Hines said, to let the board know when problems do arise, instead of just taking the stance, “That’s what the [ordinance] says.”

“I think you make a good point,” Detert responded, “and it goes for our public/private partnerships, too.”